By William Wiley, April 4, 2017
OK, so I messed up. Last month, some of you might have read an article we distributed that spoke highly of the value of Last Rites agreements, deals that supervisors can cut with employees so that the employee leaves voluntarily rather than getting fired. Unfortunately, when I drafted that piece, I was just coming off a high fever and a near-death medical experience, and my brain wasn’t working too good. Given that even when I’m healthy, my brain doesn’t work too good, I was in bad shape.
Although I intended for the entire article to be about a Last Rites agreement, I inadvertently used the term “Last Chance” agreement once or twice. Please reread the article, mentally substitute “Last Rites” for “Last Chance,” and you’ll get the meaning I was after.
A couple of readers who caught the gaffe noted that they could use an explanation of the two different agreements. Had I not made the mistake, I would not have gotten that feedback nor would I have realized a need for greater clarity. So here comes the enlightenment from my confusing article.
Usually, a Last Rites agreement is negotiated at that point that the supervisor has reached the conclusion that the employee needs to no longer be employed in his position. Many times, the supervisor has already collected enough evidence to propose a removal based on either misconduct or unacceptable performance. Here’s how it works in most cases:
- The supervisor or someone on her behalf (attorney, human resources specialist, ombudsman … whomever) approaches the employee with the offer. The employee is told that he has a removal facing him soon, and is offered the chance to resign voluntarily rather than be fired. Some employees see a resignation to be an advantage to being fired because the employee’s Official Personnel File will record a voluntary quit rather than a forced removal.
- Supervisors see voluntary quits as an advantage to firing the employee because the quit is effective immediately at getting the employee out of the workplace, and the employee has waived appeal/grievance/complaint rights in a well-worded Last Rites agreement (sample in the back of your copy of the FELTG textbook UnCivil Servant).
- The employee has the choice between being fired and exercising appeal rights, or quitting and forgoing appeal rights in exchange for a “clean record.” Sometimes agencies will incorporate a little time off or attorney fees as an extra incentive to resign. MSPB has a perfect record at upholding agreements like these as long as the agency does not mislead the employee.
A Last Chance agreement, as its name suggests, is negotiated between management and the employee at the time that a decision has been made to fire the employee. Usually, it happens like this:
- The supervisor proposes the employee’s removal based on some specific act of misconduct or unacceptable performance.
- The employee responds and defends herself or asks for mercy from the deciding official.
- Then, the deciding official or someone on his behalf (attorney, human resources specialist, ombudsman … whomever) approaches the employee with the offer. The employee is told that the decision to remove her has been made, but that the deciding official is willing to hold the implementation of that decision in abeyance for some specific period of time: often one or two years. In exchange for not being fired immediately, the employee agrees to whatever the agency can get: promises to perform acceptably, to refrain from future misconduct, attend anger management training, apologize, etc. In addition, he agrees to waive rights to appeal/grieve/complain anything related to the removal action being held in abeyance.
- If during the abeyance period the employee violates the Last Chance agreement, the agency is free to remove him immediately based on the previous misconduct that was the basis for the agreement (not based on the misconduct that is the breach). The advantage to the agency if this happens is that:
- The employee can appeal, but he has the burden of proving he did not breach the agreement. The agency does not have the burden of proving the charged misconduct nor does it have to prove that the agreement was breached.
- The Douglas Factors are immaterial. The employee has effectively accepted the reasonableness of a removal penalty by entering into the agreement.
- The Board loves these things. It hardly ever sets them aside based on fraud, mutual mistake, or bad faith. Although these are traditional bases for finding contracts to be void, we can count on one hand the number of times these agreements have been found by MSPB to be invalid.
In one of my favorite Last Chance Agreement removals, the Board upheld the termination of an employee who was on an LCA when the employee breached the no-misconduct part of the agreement by sending a single email referring to a coworker as a “kiss ass.” If you draft an LCA tight and broad, you can characterize almost any act of future misconduct as a breach, acts that would not have to independently warrant removal.
Don’t forget: If you’re dealing with a collective bargaining unit employee, you need to invite the union to any formal discussions you have when negotiating agreements like these. In my practice, I have found it useful to explain Last Rites and Last Chance agreements to union officials before I ever need to use them. A good union rep will do a little research and see the significant advantage for an employee to have these options to a removal. In fact, I’ve even had union officials do a little arm twisting on their own to try to get the CBU employee to understand the advantages of these sorts of deals.
If you need more details on tactics to use and language to employ in agreements like these, be sure to sign up for our next class in the art of the deal (civil service edition – otherwise known as Settlement Week) October 30-November 3 in Washington, DC. [email protected]